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Don Suhor: From Dixieland to Bopsieland

Charles Suhor By

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Don persuaded me to accompany his front-room solo jams. At first I used coat-hanger sticks, cardboard boxes, a pot cover cymbal, and a small stepstool for a woodblock. I was strongly attracted to Baby Dodds and George Wettling, who were sensitive colorists as well as great timekeepers. Later on, I bought a second-hand drum set from Phil Zito. Don learned dozens of standard tunes from Goodman and Shaw's combo records. Inspired by Goodman, he tested himself—and me—with breakneck tempos on tunes like "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise."

Don took up alto sax in his late high school years and was soon playing in local dance bands. He chose alto sax rather than tenor because he liked the bright sound of the instrument in big band sax sections, especially Les Robinson with Artie Shaw. But he became enamored of a radically different sound when he heard the dauntingly complex early recordings of Lee Konitz and the Lennie Tristano school. Jamming in our living room, I could almost see the wheels of his mind turning as he wove out long, complex solo lines. On clarinet, he raised the bar by playing tunes like "I've Got Rhythm" in the standard key then moving up a half step to improvise in every key.

Self-taught on piano, Don learned chord progressions and played energetic solos. Session players in the Quarter welcomed his backup because of his attention to well-voiced chords and hip comping. Alto saxophonist Mouse Bonati and trumpeter Mike Serpas were also excellent accompanists. Not being trained as keyboard technicians, they refrained from overly busy pianistics, concentrating on spare, laid-back comping.

College Years, the Quarter, and the Army

Don enrolled in the Loyola Music School in 1950. As a freshman he played third alto in the big band amid veteran musicians. Veterans, literally. Many were Swing Era ex-servicemen studying under the GI Bill of Rights. The band, directed by John Whitlock, was a non-credit activity but it carried a modest scholarship and was officially sanctioned by the administration. Not that the administration was ahead of the curve in jazz education; the band was the heart of a student recruitment and campus entertainment troupe called "Campus Capers"—a lighthearted name that signaled a less than serious musical intent.

But the Capers band had a solid lineage. They were descendants of the Loyola Moods, a fine postwar student band with skilled swing and modern jazz musicians, among them trumpeters Woody Guidry, Rupert Copponex, Bill Scarlato, and Louis Escobido (also a jazz vibraphonist); trombonist Larry Valentino; saxists Al Belletto, Frank Manino (later, Frankie Mann) and Jack Day; pianist Fred Crane; bassist Oliver ("Stick") Felix; drummer Louis Timken; and arrangers Jack Martin, Jack Day, and Clem Toca.

John Whitlock, ran afoul of the administration by giving most of his energies and time to the Capers group, allowing the concert band to devolve into an unlistenable aggregate of unmotivated students. The Capers band performed for student dances, campus variety shows, recruitment programs, and non-profit organizations and played a fifteen-minute Saturday radio show on the university-owned radio station, WWL. The administration feared that the band's visibility was resulting in the music program being labeled a "jazz school"—still a highly negative label in Academe, and a particular danger in the city known for its jazz history.

Whitlock resigned in summer of 1952. I entered Loyola in the fall semester and began four years with the Capers group and the concert band. The latter was given new life by the passionately dedicated George Jansen, trumpeter with the New Orleans Symphony. Paul Guma, Don's highly respected clarinet teacher, took over the Capers band. A fine classical and jazz clarinetist in the Goodman mold, Guma was also an excellent lead alto saxophonist and gifted classical guitarist. But the next year a student director, Nicholls High alumnus Paul Emenes, was assigned to lead the group. Regrettably, Don and most of the other jazz players had graduated or dropped out. A dozen years would pass before the directorship was established as an official faculty position.


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